When I first came to Cambodia in February 2007, I sped through it like The Flash because I had to reach Bangkok by March 1 to start my Thai classes. I missed a number of places, including Kampot, a tiny quiet town on the coast, south of Sihanoukville. I vowed to make it there on this trip.
Kampot is a small riverside town that is mostly in bed by 11pm. It’s in stark contrast to the loud and late-night party destination that its neighbor Sihanoukville is. Before the Khmer Rouge, this region of Cambodia used to be the getaway area for the French, and you still find decaying French villas throughout this region. On Kampot’s river promenade, you’ll see the heavy French influence of wide boulevards, trees, and (decaying) French architecture.
Modern Kampot might not be the happening destination it once was (it’s small, quiet, and run down), but it attracts a lot of people because of the surrounding Bokor Mountains and relaxing atmosphere.
Kampot is a black hole — life moves so slowly here that you get caught in its gravitational pull and find that your two-day trip has suddenly turned into six. It’s hard to leave.
Luckily, there are a few activities here to keep you entertained during your visit:
Bokor Hill Station – Most people come to Kampot to visit Bokor, the old French hillside villa, palace, and casino. I missed it in 2007 and I am very sad I did. What was once beautiful ruins only accessible by a dirt road is now a construction site for casinos and luxury villas easily visited by a paved road. This place has become Disneyland, its former historic value ruined. I list it here only so I can tell you to skip it. It’s no longer the place it once was.
Pepper farms – Kampot pepper is considered some of the best in the world because of its strong taste. Kampot was once one of the biggest pepper-growing regions in the world (the area is slowly rebuilding from time of the Khmer Rouge), and a day trip to a farm is a common activity. It was my most interesting trip, because before my visit I knew nothing of pepper except that it improved the taste of my food. But after standing beside the tall vines, learning about how different types of pepper are made (pepper is picked at different levels of ripeness to obtain different colors), I have a new appreciation for the spice.
Day trip to Kep – The next big city in the region, Kep is a small fishing village with a very nice beach. There’s really nothing to do in this tiny town besides eat. Kep is famous for its seafood, and the cracked pepper crab is the local dish of choice. It makes for a good day trip: walk the markets, eat some food, chill on the beach. But if the “hustle and bustle” of Kampot is too much for you, come stay in quieter Kep.
Cave trip – There are a number of caves in the region, including one with a religious shrine. You can hire a tuk-tuk from Kampot and explore them for the day.
River cruise – With a river flowing through the city, it’s not hard to imagine this being on the list. If you take the Bokor trip, a sunset river cruise is included. If you don’t take the trip, you can still find a river cruise or rent a boat on your own from either one of the tourist offices or fisherman on the river.
Eat some BBQ ribs – I would never have expected to find some of the best BBQ ribs in Cambodia, but I did. Spend one dinner at The Rusty Keyhole eating a rack or half rack of BBQ pork ribs. You’ll be able to enjoy a healthy side of mashed potatoes and coleslaw too.
Eat durian – Kampot is the durian capital of Cambodia. Durian is a fruit with a very pungent smell found throughout Southeast Asia. Its smell is so strong that it is often banned from hotels. Many of the pepper farms also grow durian, and there’s a big monument to the stinky fruit in the center of Kampot. Personally, I don’t mind the fruit. The smell doesn’t bother me too much, and while it’s not the best tasting fruit in the world, it’s completely edible.
See salt areas – On the road to Kep, you’ll find numerous old rice paddies that have been converted into salt fields. Workers bring in sea water from the coast (by hand) and dry it in the fields to create sea salt. After the water is gone, the salt is packed down, scooped up, and sold off.
Drink a fruit shake – At night, the street near the old bridge becomes lined with fruit shake vendors. You can move from vendor to vendor, trying different fruit shake concoctions, sit down at the stalls, and people-watch.
I really loved Kampot and its atmosphere. It was a complete 180 from busy Sihanoukville. I was surprised to find that even with so few places to stay (personal favorite: The Magic Sponge), there were still plenty of rooms available. Even though a lot of people get stuck here, not a lot of people bother to venture here in the first place.
Which, while a shame — because they miss out on such a great place — is fine by me. It keeps Kampot quiet and wonderful.